An overlooked argument for a meatless diet
// Brittney Kroiss

The occurrence of food shortages and malnutrition are increasing rapidly in our growing world, even more so with climate change. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that roughly 925 million people, 13.6 per cent of the world population, were “undernourished” in 2010. Out of the world’s population of 6.8 billion, only an estimated 2 billion people live predominantly on a meat-based diet.

A United Nations report, put together by the UN Environment Program’s International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management, states that “eating less meat and dairy is necessary to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change, global hunger and energy shortages.”

In our world facing overpopulation and overconsumption, food is at the top of our list of priorities when addressing sustainability. With all the talk out there as to what is really sustainable and what isn’t, it can be hard to determine what our best alternative is. Could a vegetarian or vegan diet be the answer?

In a 2002 study, Cornell University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology compared the amount of energy, land and water required to produce meat-based and plant-based diets. While neither diet is truly “sustainable” due to the food industry’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels, the plant-based diet was indeed much more sustainable. According to the study, for every 1 kg of good-quality animal protein produced, the livestock are fed on average about 6 kg of plant protein and required 100 times more water.

“Environmental vegetarianism” is based on the indication that animal production, particularly by intensive agriculture, is environmentally unsustainable as it increases pollution and uses a large amount of natural resources. Industrial monoculture, the harvesting of a large crop of a single food species, contributes to soil erosion, air pollution, excessive energy use, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the meat industry makes up about 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Methane, which is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, makes up a large portion of these emissions. Cows produce a comparable amount of methane as an average car per day.

So given the state of our current meat industry, is the answer to stop eating meat altogether? Perhaps the answer lies in finding a balance between the two extremes by reducing our consumption of meat-based protein to a few times a week instead of every day and making more informed decisions when grocery shopping.

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the sustainability of plant-protein based diets is whether processed, soy-based “fake meat” products, such as “tofurky” or “vegan sausages”, are much better than meat.

In an interview with, Ashley Koff, a registered dietician in Los Angeles, said, “What we know about soy is that as you process it, you lose a lot of the benefits. Any soy-based fake meat product is incredibly processed, and you have to use chemicals to get the mock flavor.”

The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found in a 2009 study that “while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.” Whether excluding meat or not, whole food diets are usually, if not always, a healthier and more sustainable option than processed products.

Our individual decisions as to what we eat on a daily basis, when looked at from a larger scale, make a huge impact on our planet. In the end, what one chooses as the best alternative, whether eating a vegetarian diet, or conscious shopping for free-range, naturally-fed meat from local farms, is up to the individual. Regardless of which route one decides to take, some action is better than none at all.

//Brittney Kroiss, Writer
//Illustration by Kailey Patton

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